Ukraine has paid too high a price for the democratic reforms ushered in by the 2004 Orange Revolution, according to the pro-Russian front-runner in the country's presidential race, who pledges to bring back the "rule of law" if elected next month.
Viktor Yanukovych, whose Kremlin-backed election victory in 2004 was overturned by the Supreme Court amid allegations of fraud, says the pro-Western revolution that brought his rivals to power has led to political chaos, corruption and a dismal economy.
"So what did this Orange Revolution give us?," Yanukovych asked in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. "Freedom of speech? That's very good. But what price did the Ukrainian people pay for this? For the development of this democratic principle in our country, the price was too great."
Democracy is "above all the rule of law," which the Orange Revolution has failed to bring, he said.
Since taking power in 2005 on a wave of hope and excitement, the revolution's leaders have disappointed many Ukrainians, fostering nostalgia among some for the stable, if autocratic, rule of an earlier era.
The Orange Revolution took Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, as the pro-Western leadership sought membership in the European Union and NATO. It also deepened animosity between the pro-Russian east and the west of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism is strong.
Yanukovych said his first priority as president would be to revive the use of the Russian language in schools and in the workplace, a move that would reverse the "forced Ukrainization" of the millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who support him.
"This is the main question that we have to solve right now, the one that is very seriously worrying the people," he said.
This change would comply with the one wish Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made last week for the Ukrainian elections.
"The only thing I really want is for the future president ... to be intent on warm, heartfelt, even brotherly relations between our countries, and for the Russian language not to be insulted," Medvedev said in a televised interview.
With elections less than three weeks away, Yanukovych, 59, is leading in the polls. The former electrician told the AP that he would put his weight behind Moscow on issues ranging from trade to security.
He repeated his pledge not to seek membership in NATO, Russia's Cold War foe. But he said he would give his full support to Medvedev's proposal for a joint European security regime, which has gotten an icy reception in most of Europe.
He also promised, if elected, to do everything in his power to speed Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Viktor Yushchenko, the current president and the leader of the Orange Revolution, is going into the vote with approval ratings in the single digits. He has been at loggerheads with his former ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for most of his time in office, causing political gridlock that has deepened the country's economic collapse and alienated voters.
Yanukovych, a barrel-chested hunting enthusiast, also denied that his 2004 presidential victory had been fixed. Instead the Supreme Court broke the law when it overturned his election and ordered another round of voting, he said.
"The third round of those elections was illegal," he said. "Why? Because five years have passed, and in those five years, the falsification of my election has basically not been proven. This means that those elections were legal. They were not rigged."
His campaign has focused on shaming Tymoshenko, his only real competition, for her leadership of the Orange Revolution, which he blames for turning Ukraine's government into one of the most corrupt in the world and its economy into one of the worst-performing.
"Democracy is above all rule of law, it is compliance with the law and constitution by everyone, and in these five years we have seen how the laws have been systematically broken, how the principles of the law have been replaced by political expediency," Yanukovych said.
In most of the country, the issues of language and national identity have been more divisive than bread-and-butter issues like unemployment. The word "Ukraine" derives from the Russian for "at the outskirts," an identity the leaders of the Orange Revolution have sought to uproot by promoting a unique Ukrainian identity. The use of Russian, seen by its opponents as a symbol of Soviet subjugation, has been phased out.
On a recent campaign trip to the Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula, where he enjoys broad support, Yanukovich poked fun at the Ukrainian language and the politicians who insist on speaking it.
As he mocked Tymoshenko's upbeat appraisals of the economy, he sarcastically switched into Ukrainian from Russian, drawing laughs from the crowd of about 2,000 supporters.
Switching back into Russian, he said, "I'm tired of hearing five years of this gibberish, and seeing this variety show performed by the Orange troupe."
Valentina Goncharova, a 59-year-old retiree who said she receives a pension of around $100 per month, said she supports Yanukovich not because of his promises of higher pensions and wages, but because of his pro-Russian views.
"The Crimea has always belonged to Russia," she said. "It has always been closer to Russia. I think that is why people support him here."